Footlocker holds Pittsburgh artist's sketches of WWII soldiers
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The significance of Pittsburgh native Elizabeth Black's accomplishments in World War II were never fully appreciated by her sons when they were growing up.
A footlocker containing evidence of her remarkable past arrived unexpectedly in 2010 at the door of John Black and his wife, Kay, in Tennessee. The trunk had been stored for decades in a family member's garage in California.
The discoveries inside led John Black to want to share his mother's story. The result is “Portraits for the Homefront: The Story of Elizabeth Black,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Nov. 7 on WQED-TV.
In the 1930s, Elizabeth Black was gaining a solid reputation as an artist, receiving recognition at Carrick and Peabody high schools, winning a scholarship to the city's Ad-Art Studio School, taking classes at Carnegie Tech and studying at the prestigious Art Students League of New York. The Mellons, Craigs and Shaws were among prominent Pittsburgh families who commissioned her work for portraits of their children and other family members.
In 1940, she was selected to paint 25 larger-than-life portraits of literary giants such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau and others that were permanently mounted at the Carnegie Library, North Side, until they disappeared during a late 1960s renovation.
At the height of World War II, Black abandoned a promising Pittsburgh art career to join the American Red Cross effort overseas. She proposed a project to sketch soldiers and send the portraits to worried families in the United States.
For two years, she sketched her way across Europe, choosing her subjects through a lottery and completing as many as a dozen portraits a day.
Every solder, sailor and airman signed their sketches, often including endearments to loved ones at home. They also autographed Black's journal, a collection of appreciative messages, poems and well-wishes to the artist.
She completed more than 1,000 sketches, and the originals were sent to wives, mothers and other family members throughout the United States. She took quality photographs of about 100 sketches to keep a record of her work.
The footlocker was filled with those photographs, as well as scrapbooks, news clippings and images of Black standing before the easel as soldiers watched.
John Black made contact with David Solomon, the award-winning WQED executive producer and writer who began work last year with photographer Paul Ruggieri on the documentary.
The one-hour program explores Black's lost art career and includes interviews with elderly veterans who encountered the artist, and captures scenes of appreciative families finally receiving portraits that never arrived.
Through social media, a separate interactive component of the project titled “Finding Elizabeth's Soldiers” is attempting to make sure the remaining portraits in the Black collection reach families who might not have them. An online gallery of the drawings can be viewed at www.wqed.org/elizabeth black.
Solomon says the undertaking has been one of the most-memorable and satisfying in his career.
“It was a hidden treasure of a story, a Pittsburgh story that had an emotional impact nationally,” says the Duquesne University graduate and Forest Hills resident.
The story of Elizabeth Black, who died in 1983 of a heart attack, is a reminder of how just one person can make a huge difference, Solomon says.
“She provided a moment of brightness for hundreds of troops in battle, and gave hundreds of families peace of mind when it was desperately needed.”
Frank and Eva Clark were surprised when John Black and WQED staff visited their Beaver home to present them with a long-lost portrait of Frank sketched in 1944, while he served with the Army in France.
“It's a nice gift, a really nice gift,” Clark, 92, says. “I've got four girls, and they all wanted one. They are fighting over it,” he says. “They really enjoy the way it looks. It looks just like me.”
He remembers Elizabeth Black as “real nice to get along with. She took a lot of time with you.” It lifted the spirits of the men, he says.
Pittsburgh native and Irwin resident Betty Koppel Houston says it was about a year after her father, Leo Koppel, had been deployed with the Army that her worried family received a portrait of him from the Red Cross. He was sketched on leave in Holland after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
“It was exciting to see the portrait when it came home. I was 7 when he went away. I was Daddy's girl. I missed my father,” she says.
Her mother hung the portrait on the wall in the living room of their Crafton residence. Houston now has it on the wall in her home. “It means the world to me,” she says. “It's a good likeness.”
Leo Koppel autographed it to his wife: “To Betty, Love + Kisses, your loving husband, Leo.”
John Black, who praises the manner in which Solomon tells his mother's story, says the most-poignant take-away for him from all the memorabilia probably is the letters written to his mother from family members after they received a sketch.
“In some cases, because of slow wartime mail, the loved one had been killed. But a family member, usually a wife, mother or sibling, still wrote a thank-you letter to a stranger who had given her a wonderful gift,” he says. Other letter-writers pleaded for more information about their loved one.
“They wrote, ‘You have seen him. How is he? Where is he now? It's been so long since we heard from him. We are so worried,' ” Black says.
His mother never sought the spotlight, he says, but he believes she would be flattered and gratified by this documentary tribute.
“She was one very talented woman who freely gave so much of herself to provide comfort and happiness to men in combat, and provide a lasting memento to their loved ones,” Black says.
“She served her country,” Solomon says, “in a most unique and appealing way.”
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